What’s on tap, Heidi C. Vlach? My plans for 2014

Hey, readers! Whether you just stumbled across me in some Google result today, or you’ve been reading my fiction for years, I’m glad you’re here. Let me tell you what I’m working on for the coming year.

—That short story collection I’ve been talking about. Tentatively titled Serpents of Sky, it’ll have many different spins on dragon mythology.  One of these shorts will be a new Story of Aligare about the motherly korvi, Constezza. I predict a February 2014 release, but we’ll see how it goes.

I'm still designing the cover, so have a stock dragon from Openclipart.org.

I’m still working on original cover art, so in the meantime, have this stock dragon from Openclipart.org.

—A tabletop game called Omens of Aligare. My roommate/best friend is a tabletop game enthusiast. He’s been tinkering with the idea of a cards-and-tokens game that’s faithful to the Aligare books — because multi-racial fantasy societies can make for really interesting roleplay games. The Aligare tabletop project picked up steam when some of our other writer friends got involved, and I’ve been offering up ideas and lore that might make the game more fun. All the effort is beginning to pay off!

Playable for 2-6 players (probably), Omens of Aligare is a resource-management game where the players work together against Aligare’s “demons” of natural disaster and illness. The game is in a playable state right now but it still needs adjustments and balancing. We don’t have concrete release plans yet; crowdfunding will likely be involved. I’ll keep you posted if anything happens.

—Two convention stops this year. I’ll be attending Furnal Equinox in Toronto, Ontario for my first time. As well, I’ll be at What The Fur? in Montreal, Quebec for my fourth year running. I’ll have dealer’s tables at both events and I hope to schedule readings, so folks can hear me perform a sample of Render (A story of Aligare). With character voices, of course. You gotta do character voices.

And since we’re very near the end of 2013, I’d also like to mention that Render (A story of Aligare) is eligible for the 2013 Ursa Major Awards.

ursamajor

The Ursa Majors recognise excellence in anthropomorphic art and literature — that’s anything where non-human character(s) plays a significant role. If you’re voting, please keep Render in mind for the Anthropomorphic Novel category! If you’re not voting, then I’d still recommend browsing the Ursa Majors’ recommended list for 2013, as well as previous years’ listings. They’re a helpful compendium of books, artwork and other media featuring non-human characters, with many works coming from independent artists and small presses.

That’s all I have planned for 2014 so far. I’m not sure what I’ll write after Serpents of Sky — maybe another novel in the Stories of Aligare series, or maybe something from a new world. I’ll chew what I’ve got on my plate first.

Hoping to see anything in particular from me in 2014? Doing anything special yourself? Share in the comments!


Insect muscles and how they can change sci-fi/fantasy

I’m all for sci-fi/fantasy creatures inspired by real Earth animals. Just look at my own korvi folk, the bird-like dragons based on Earth’s own archosaurs. And look at the strangeness of sea creatures such as the nudibranchs. But we don’t need to look hard for inspiration in the deepest oceans and the distant past. Even a simple grasshopper can challenge what we know to be true about animal life.

Consider, if you will, this Science daily article about insect muscles — or lack thereof.

In a study published today in the journal Current Biology, the researchers show that the structure of some insect leg joints causes the legs to move even in the absence of muscles. So-called ‘passive joint forces’ serve to return the limb back towards a preferred resting position. The passive movements differ in limbs that have different behavioural roles and different musculature, suggesting that the joint structures are specifically adapted to complement muscle forces.

Basically, some sections of insect legs are just hard structures that flex under pressure and spring back into place — like a wooden ruler bent and released. This is more effective than muscle contraction alone when a sharp, powerful motion is needed.

But it certainly challenges our idea that muscles are responsible for movement. Mammals use structures like elastic tendons to store energy for quick movements, but there are further possibilities when an exoskeleton is involved. (And when the creature is as small and light as an Earth insect. As the ant demonstrates when it lifts many times its body weight, physics are less constraining the smaller you are.)

I think ideas like this have enormous potential in SFF writing. Sci-fi obviously delves into real science, hence the genre’s name. But fantasy can use it, too. How better to explain a being’s strange, amazing abilities than to make its body different from a human’s? What could people find if they cut a monster up and examine its parts? Or tend to another race’s wounds?

This is part of why I’m still sketchy on the exact details of my aemet race’s anatomy. I’ve been fascinated by dinosaurs and birds long enough to have a pretty good grasp on how korvi work. And ferrin are ordinary by mammal standards. Aemets, though … I always feel like the Aligare world’s insect/mammal fusions — the betweenkind creatures — should have structures that a human finds alien. Probably some biological tricks I’m not aware of. This idea of leg strength not always coming from muscles? That could very well be one of aemetkind’s secrets. My pacifistic folk could have leg joints more similar to a grasshopper’s than a human’s — the better for them to bolt away from danger.

Ideas like this make me hopeful that speculative fiction will never run out of ways to innovate. When a simple action like jumping can hold mechanical surprises, I don’t think we have any excuse to settle for the same old stuff we’ve been assuming forever.


Fan conventions and why I love them

So, I’m back now from What The Fur? 2013, an anthropomorphic (a.k.a. furry) convention in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. It was the 4th year for the convention, and my 3rd year attending.

Conventions like these are mostly for people who identify as furries — that is, people who don’t feel that their true species is Homo sapiens, in some spiritual or emotional way. There isn’t a hard-and-fast ruling on what defines a furry. Some say you need a non-human avatar to represent yourself (a “fursona”). Others say that just liking anthropomorphic animals in stories is enough to qualify. Personally, I might not have a lot of regard for humans as an overall species but I’m pretty sure I am a human, and I consider myself simply fur-friendly. Which seems to be perfectly acceptable in the convention-going community. I like fantasy stuff that the mainstream considers weird? Cool! Furries do, too! We can spend a weekend hanging out and celebrating it!

(Some costumes, such as Kanthara’s character Vivienne in the above video, have a loose lower jaw that opens when the wearer opens their mouth. A relatively simple rig, mechanically speaking, but isn’t it amazing to see a “real” non-human speaking like that? Whenever I ask a fursuiter if I may take their photo, I’m extra delighted if their costume’s mouth moves when they say, “Sure.”)

 

So clearly enough, events like these are a far cry from the type of convention where suit-clad businesspeople talk about marketing. What The Fur? always has some organized events such as discussion panels — and I sat on a few of these panels this year, trying to make intelligent points about fantasy fiction without the use of a Backspace key. But this convention is basically a many-faceted social event. The whole point is for people to get together with friends old and new, show off their costumes, play some tabletop games, buy and sell personalized artwork, and speak the excited language of fandom. I go to What The Fur? to sell my books, but also to chat with other adults who consider it normal for a talking weasel to have something to say.

 

Since I was a teenager, I’ve been attending fan conventions with this same general attitude. At first, it was anime conventions such as Otakon and Anime North (which tend to embrace other media forms such as American animation, and video games). I loved the costuming most of all, that aspect of bringing your favourite character to life. As I began nosing around the publishing industry, I added a few literary conventions to my experience, beginning with Worldcon 2010. Those were alright, if a little …calm by my standards. Now, I’m mostly setting up my dealer’s tables at furry conventions. Anthropomorphism is a concept I enjoy a lot, and there are few greater joys than sharing enjoyment with other fannish folks.


This weekend, What The Fur? 2013

Busy, busy! I’m at my annual convention this weekend, a (relatively) small anthropomorphics meet in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. There’s plenty going on! I’m staffing my own sale table the majority of the time, and when I’m not doing that I’m on some discussion panels.

 

wtfur2013books

The paperback Stories of Aligare, all set up for perusal.

 

It’s my third year attending What The Fur? and I do have fun. And I’ll tell you folks more about it later; right now I could use some sleep.


Anthropomorphic stories: what are they and who are they for?

When I’m telling acquaintances about my writing, I often try to explain what anthropomorphism is. Partly so the person I’m talking to can feel like they learned a fancy new vocabulary word that day. But mostly because I think mainstream society needs to change the way it sees anthro characters. Anthropomorphism (“anthropos”= human-like, “morphe” = form) is when we assign human qualities to non-human things. That might mean standing on two legs, or using opposable thumbs. Or having a fleshy-lipped mouth that can speak words. Or it might be an entirely mental distinction, all about the self-awareness, intelligence and imagination that define humans as people. Thanks to fiction, these qualities can be transplanted into animals, plants, objects, intangible ideas — anything, really. So when we talk to the family cat like it understands? Mention Lady Luck or Old Man Winter? Suppose that electrical outlets look like smiley faces? We’re anthropomorphizing.

outlet

“Humans see themselves in EVERYTHING! It’s really shocking!”

That means that anthropomorphism works in both fantasy and science fiction. It can be everything from an inexplicable talking dog, to a race of dog-like aliens with a long and cultured history. And our media is full of anthropomorphism. Bugs Bunny and Tony the Tiger are good examples. Sometimes the nature of non-humanness is explored a bit, such as in the movie Toy Story, where Buzz Lightyear has to come to terms with being a toy, not a real astronaut. But these well-known modern icons often fall into the trap of being appropriate for all ages, therefore seeming “childish”. I mean, kids like animals and objects even better when they smile and talk, right? This perception of childishness is a modern trend. Animal characters were a staple in fables and folklore for much of human history. Aesop’s fables, Reynard the fox, the trickster Coyote, and Arachne the spider are just a few examples. Animal characters were used to add colour to fables and explain the world to a broad audience. It’s only in the last 200-ish years that popular culture has deemed anthropomorphic characters to be primarily for children. Walt Disney’s dominance in family viewing really cemented that impression, with all the wide-eyed forest animals.

Pictured: characters who could decorate a nursery.

Pictured: characters who could decorate a nursery.

Not that Disney movies can’t have meaning for adults. I doubt that children fully appreciate, say, The Lion King‘s themes of responsibility and identity. The king succession plot is basically Shakespeare’s Hamlet. But it’s easy to overlook that when we talk about cartoon characters. As for books? When people think of novels with all anthropomorphic characters, the titles that spring to mind are often meant for young audiences. “Animal books”, they’re often called. Redwall, Warriors, and Guardians of Ga’Hoole are some of the biggest names. And despite liking anthropomorphism,  I’ve always found these sorts of books …lacking. Their scenarios and social messages often aren’t very coherent unless you keep excusing them as just children’s entertainment. Which reinforces the idea that non-human characters = cute talking animals = shallow fluff. The major exceptions in popular literature? Watership Down is richly written and mostly well-regarded in literary circles (but you still get the occasional person sniffing that they refuse to read about “bunny rabbits”).  Jonathan Livingston Seagull is about an ambitious seagull, a fable about rising above mundanity and finding enlightenment. And Animal Farm is anthropomorphic, although the animals are an obvious allegory for human politics. There are many anthropomorphic books out there, despite the mainstream media insisting that adults don’t want to read them. A lot of these books fall into the furry subculture. Furry works are anthropomorphic but I don’t think all anthropomorphic works are furry. I’d say there’s a difference in approach and tone. Furry characters are often more strongly similar to humans — in body type, speech patterns, and their familiar Earth locations and sci-fi scenarios. They’re the charming mascots and the modern-day metaphors. They can often speak more directly to humans, without the reader/viewer having to learn a whole new world scenario first.

Disney's version of Robin Hood is a good example, although the company surely didn't intend to speak so clearly to niche interests.

Disney’s version of Robin Hood is a good example, although the company surely didn’t intend to speak so clearly to niche interests.

Like I say, I want the whole world to open its mind to this stuff. I want more people to take a chance on some animal character and find that there’s actually a lot to empathize with. Fantasy and sci-fi readers are often willing to take that step, but I think other readers should try it, too. They might find themselves pleasantly surprised by the themes, questions and genuine heart. Below are a few anthropomorphic stories I think could use more love. Have a look and see if anything catches your eye:

Short stories/novelettes:

The Language of Emotion by Bill “Hafoc” Rogers. A science fiction story about a horse-like alien who analyzes a strange interstellar transmission — and finds it to be human classical music. Great example of a sci-fi story where humans aren’t the most advanced things in the universe.

All of Us Can Almost by Carol Emshwiller. A fantasy story where the characters are described sparingly (they’re birds? Possibly griffons?), but the specifics are less important than the main character’s emotional journey. She questions the apathy of her species — who have lost the ability to fly — and she strives to change her own destiny.

A Left-Handed Sword by Phil Geusz. Geusz’s works often use the idea of transhumanism, where a human transforms into something else and must adjust their sense of identity. A Left-Handed Sword is a thoughtful, quiet story about the quarantined survivors of a virus that turns people into anthropomorphic animals.

Novels:

The Plague Dogs by Richard Adams. The author of Watership Down didn’t just write about rabbits! This story is darker than Watership Down, with themes of humans abusing animals, but it contrasts realistic humans in Scotland with a vivid, secret side of their pet dogs.

Of Wind And Sand by Sylvie Bérard. Spacefaring humans are marooned on a distant planet, and they encounter the native lizard-like beings. Relations quickly degrade to violence, slavery and hatred — because how could different races possibly understand or tolerate each other? The book is dark and violent, but it’s a great exploration of the flaws of personhood.

Waterways by Kyell Gold. A popular story in the furry community, this is the coming-out, coming-of-age story of a teenage anthropomorphic otter and his fox friend. Like many of Gold’s works, this is a homosexual romance with some sex scenes. But the characters are so likeable and their story so simultaneously sad and joyful, I recommend this even if you’re not usually a big reader of m/m romance.

The Aphorisms of Kherishdar by M. C. A. Hogarth. Unlike the others, this one is still on my To Read list. Hogarth has receieved a lot of praise for the poetic prose and the highly cultured alien society seen in the Kherishdar series. It’s classy, well-made stuff.

Khe by Alexes Razevich.  I’m reading this at the moment. Khe is an alien female commited to farmwork and raising hatchlings, until she is burdened with a magic-like power to accelerate crop growth, which starts bringing out the unpleasant secrets of her society. The story is an interesting blend of fantasy and sci-fi strengths, while being innovative for both genres.

Do you know of an anthropomorphic story more people should read? Share in the comments!